Arbitrator Stephen Burbank on Monday ruled against the NFL Players Association's argument challenging NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's ability to suspend current and former New Orleans Saints players involved in the team's "bounty" program.
The NFLPA had argued five days earlier that Burbank should have the authority to rule on the players because their alleged behavior was more of a salary-cap issue than one governed by the collective bargaining agreement. Burbank decided otherwise, ruling the players' alleged behavior was "conduct detrimental" and thus subject to collectively bargained discipline -- and Goodell's jurisdiction. The league had based its disciplinary decisions on that same line of reasoning.
This isn't a decisive blow against the players' attempts to appeal the discipline and clear their names -- or at least have their punishments reduced. But Burbank's decision gives Goodell and the NFL strong backing in this case, and it sets a precedent for any other similar matters that could arise in the future.
Goodell suspended Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire 2012 season and teammate Will Smith for four games. Former Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, was suspended for eight games, and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, was docked three games.
"System Arbitrator Stephen Burbank upheld the commissioner's authority under the collective bargaining agreement to impose 'conduct detrimental' discipline on players who provided or offered to provide financial incentives to injure opponents," league spokesman Greg Aiello wrote in an e-mail to NFL.com. "He also upheld the commissioner's authority to impose such discipline against players who obstructed a league investigation. The System Arbitrator thus confirmed the commissioner's authority to suspend Mr. Fujita, Mr. Smith and Mr. Vilma. He invited the commissioner to clarify the precise basis for his discipline of Mr. Hargrove who, among other things, was found to have lied to the league's investigators and obstructed their investigation."
The NFLPA issued a statement shortly after the ruling was announced, indicating it will appeal Burbank's decision.
"Any pay-to-injure program runs counter to the health and safety principles we stand for as players," the statement read. "However, none of the players punished in this case have seen a shred of evidence justifying the NFL's punishment."
Citing Burbank's clarification that his ruling was not "intended to convey a view about the underlying facts" related to the discipline, the NFLPA said it would push for "neutral arbitration" and "the fair due process rights of all players."
The NFL and NFLPA also are awaiting a ruling from arbitrator Shyam Das on a grievance that was filed earlier in May. In that grievance, the players' association argued that since the alleged bounties were collected on during action on the field, collectively bargained arbitrators Ted Cottrell or Art Shell, not Goodell, should rule and hear the appeals. Again, the NFL argued that the player behavior falls under the guidelines of "conduct detrimental," based on the CBA.
Players also have notified the league of plans to appeal. Those appeals, which would come before Goodell, would be somewhat of a last resort, because the grievance process -- as was the case Monday -- upholds Goodell's authority to rule and hear appeals.
Vilma, who was suspended for the season and, like other players, has vehemently denied being part of a bounty program, has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. The case has been assigned to a court in Louisiana, but no court date has been set. Goodell recently was given an extension to reply to the lawsuit by July 5.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.